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Read: “With Pious Regret”

06 May 2010

After the great Ethiopian famine of 1984—brought into every American’s home by efforts like the Live Aid concert—”the world swore such famine would never happen again,” says the new book Enough.

“Yet not even twenty years later, ‘never again’ was happening again…. And this time, even more people—14 million—were desperate for something to eat.”
These kinds of famines are rarely triggered as simple as an “act of god”—a drought or a flood. The more recent famine, in 2003, came just after a “historic bumper harvest [that] overwhelmed the country’s underdeveloped markets with a surplus, and prices collapsed.”

So farmers cut back on costs by “sowing cheaper, lower-quality corn seed… and abandoning the use of expensive fertilizer.” Farmers knew they’d grow less this way, but they figured they’d still make enough to feed their families. “Farmers all across Ethiopia reacted int eh same manner. Some who worked the country’s largest farms took thousands of acres out of production. Others shut off their simple irrigation systems to reduce expenses.”

Then there was a drought. Harvests were meagre, and farmers ran through their reserves from the bumper crop the year before. Then the hunger began.

To me, this suggests that modern farming—with expensive seeds and fertilizers, and bills for water and fuel to pump the water—has to be accompanied by better control over prices, and efforts to improve storage. I’ll have to read more of Enough to see what remedies the authors suggest.

“Since the time of the Green Revolution, the world has known how to end famine and tame chronic hunger,” Enough says. “We have the information and tools. But we haven’t done it.”

For one thing, “we’re falling behind [on ending hunger] not so much because of a population increase but because of the population’s increased prosperity.” People are eating more meat and dairy, and we’re feeding more and more of the grains we grow to livestock.

(I never really thought about it until I read Tristram Stuart’s book Waste, but many livestock—like pigs and chickens—used to live on our food wastes and other things, like worms, that we didn’t want to eat. Feeding our livestock on grains we could eat ourselves is a very new thing, and underlies a lot of problems with the food system.)

Then there’s biofuels—thirsty engines competing with hungry mouths, Enough points out. Meanwhile, it seems the world’s resolve has eroded on maintaining grain reserves in case of emergency.

Meanwhile, yields haven’t been rising they way they used to. “In India and Pakistan and across Asia, complacency over the rising production had sapped the political will to keep the momentum of agricultural development going.”

(I’m not sure that’s the root cause of the slowing improvements. It could be diminishing returns of high-input, industrialized agriculture itself. Perhaps they could keep boosting yields, but would other parts of the food system—such as transport to markets, and storing grain reserves—keep up, to make everything work? And, more fundamentally, would those boosted yields be sustainable?)

Whatever the causes, it’s good to have a reminder that “much of the chronic, everyday hunger in the world is now a man-made catastrophe,” as Enough puts it. That helps us know where to look for remedies. We could develop more drought-resistant crops, for example, but changing other parts of the food system might have bigger payoffs.

Farm subsidies are one place to start. The authors, both reporters at The Wall Street Journal, are even-handed on this topic. “Farm subsidies in the United States and Europe, for instance, started out as a vehicle for helping poor farmers recover from economic calamity or war. But over the years they have grown to be a matter of addiction.”

But these authors are no anti-subsidy zealots. “The internatinoal financial institutions controlled by the United States and Europe have long forbade African governments from subsidizing their own farmers if they are to receive any loans.”

This is all standard stuff from the likes of Michael Pollan or Walden Bello—who I like, by the way. But it’s good to see these mainstream reporters making these points, too.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »